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Why running a healthy studio is its own design challenge

March 3, 2020, 4:57 PM UTC

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I caught up with designer, artist, and Brainstorm Design regular Daan ​Roosegaarde over the weekend and our conversation inevitably veered towards one of his favorite topics: The tricky work of running your own studio. Roosegaarde strongly believes that leading people while building a successful, sustainable business is an independent designer’s greatest design challenge.

With headquarters in Rotterdam, Studio Roosegaarde currently employs 38 people—a number Roosegaarde feels is optimum for fulfilling the diversity of work that comes their way, while not losing touch with the team. And the work is certainly diverse, from building smog-eating towers and energy-producing dance floors to developing the Space Waste Lab, which aims to capture and recycle the 8.1 million kilos of broken rocket and satellite pieces floating around the earth. His most recent project, Levenslicht, is an interactive monument for Dutch Holocaust victims made from 104,000 luminescent stones.

After our lunch, I read a story about the artist Damien Hirst. In an interview with British magazine Idler, Hirst describes how he came close to financial ruin—after a period of time in which he earned £40 million a week. That can partially be explained by his previously hedonistic lifestyle. But more than that, he says, he totally lost control of his studio.

By the time of Hirst’s 2012 retrospective at Tate Modern, no less than 250 people worked for him. “You start by thinking you’ll get one assistant and before you know it you’ve got biographers, fire eaters, jugglers, f***ing minstrels, and lyre players all wandering around,” he says. “They’re all saying they aren’t being paid enough and they all need assistants. Then one night you ask the lyre player to play for you and they say: ‘My lyre is all scratched up and I did ask for a lyre technician but you said not yet and if I had one I could come and play for you now.’ So you’ve got to have a lyre technician and then you better get him an Uber account too.”

A studio of 250 employees, compared to a modest 38. Roosegaarde certainly seems to be achieving a balance of art and commerce, and Hirst’s reflections shed light on why that accomplishment is indeed its own kind of design feat. Take heed all those considering hiring that minstrel.

More design news below.

Tony Chambers

VISION, EMPATHY, SCALE

This edition of Business By Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

Open captioning. A group of volunteers is working to make Reddit more accessible by writing hyper-detailed captions for popular memes and videos. Alt text is becoming de rigueur for media outlets and professionally-run websites, but user-generated social media content doesn’t always account for visually impaired people who rely on text-to-speech tools to navigate images. These self-described “human volunteer content transcribers” offer an interesting model for how sprawling content sites like Reddit could work for more people. [Wired UK]

Visual culture. Even before the United States had confirmed cases of coronavirus, misplaced consumer fear of the outbreak started to take a toll on businesses in Chinese American neighborhoods like Chinatown in Manhattan and Flushing in Queens. Now that New York has its first confirmed case, images continue to perpetuate potentially harmful stereotypes: For instance, New York Post ran a photo of people in Flushing, even though, as one journalist on Twitter points out, New York’s first coronavirus patient lives in Manhattan. [New York Post]

Waste not. With all the materials exhibits require, art shows generate a lot of waste. So for an exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the design duo Formafantasma, known for material experimentations, built display pieces intended for eventual reuse. The sheets of steel, plywood boxes, and Kvadrat fabrics supply the backdrop for a show of baroque Roman art; after June 7, the material will get recycled or donated. [Dezeen]

A new watercooler. LinkedIn wants to make business networking fun by launching a digital product similar to Snapchat and Instagram Stories. If launched (the unnamed product is still being tested with a select group of users), this would build on LinkedIn’s new, voicey editorial platforms by letting companies broadcast moments from work or carry on informal conversations with job candidates—a move that might prove useful in recruiting Generation Z workers. [The Verge]

Subway Map-Q Line
A New York City commuter looks at a subway map.
Anthony Behar—SIPA/AP Images

Staying power. Michael Hertz, the New York designer who created the city’s modern subway map, died last month. Until 1979, New Yorkers relied on Massigmo Vignelli’s famous Modernist one, which, while instantly beloved, didn’t relate the subterranean train system to the above-ground world. Hertz rehauled the map by drawing parks and waterways to give riders wayfinding clues. His map is still used by millions today. [The New York Times]

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Over 70 museums across the U.S. have committed to showcasing feminist art by Anna Ben Yehuda Rahmanan

The coronavirus is giving China cover to expand its surveillance. What happens when the virus is gone? by Eamon Barrett

Here’s what’s next for a self-driving car startup that’s poised to make history by Eric C. Evarts

Female founders got more funding than ever in 2019. But still less than WeWork took in. by Emma Hinchliffe

The oil industry is finally talking climate crisis, but don’t expect change to come easily by Katherine Dunn

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT—AROUND THE WEB

Milan’s Salone del Mobile furniture fair postponed until June due to coronavirus from Dezeen

IDEO Designers Share the Best Creative Advice They’ve Ever Received from IDEO

Our intersections are too dangerous. Here’s how to fix them. from Curbed

Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do? from New York

Love and Squalor from Design Observer

PLASTIC BAG BANS: SOLUTION OR PANACEA?

The system is the problem”

New York’s statewide plastic bag ban took effect this weekend to a chorus of praise from eco-conscious types on Instagram and media outlets like The New York Times, which bid farewell to the city’s many bags by photographing them. (Viewed together, the graphic design on the bags is so good you might feel almost wistful to see them go.)

New Yorkers use a reported 23 billion plastic bags each year, and any measure that reduces single-use plastic is important. But the law also feels spiritually familiar to the plastic straw backlash. Carrying a reusable tote and sipping from a metal straw are both easy, worthwhile actions people can take towards reducing waste. Both also risk becoming a panacea—a do-good, feel-good moment that makes you forget about how much of the problem still exists.

Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego and one of the people credited with creating the human-centered design discipline, sojourned into the depths of that problem—of waste, plastics, and recycling. In a two-part essay series in Fast Company, Norman examines the tangled recycling industry through the eyes of a designer, and comes away appalled at how the inconsistencies between recycling companies have led to a user-hostile experience for doing away with waste. Different companies accept different materials; plastics get coded with hard-to-find numbers that correlate to different, opaque recycling rules. “The system is not designed to solve the problem: The system is the problem,” Norman writes.

“The real culprit in the story of recycling is failure to identify the core, underlying problem. Recycling is the symptom. The underlying problem is the design and manufacturing of so much stuff that has to be discarded … I do not see a widespread attempt to use materials that are readily reusable. Instead, the burden is placed upon the citizens of the world: Recycle or be punished!”

Norman ultimately lands on a broad, sweeping solution, pointing out that businesses can stop manufacturing objects that will eventually head to a bin. We’ve heard this line of rhetoric before. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening, and plastic production hasn’t slowed down. And plastic bags may be banned in New York, but they’re actually protected in some other states. Plastic waste might be a design problem, but it bears repeating: Businesses, not tote-carrying consumers, have the power to fix it.